Donald Trump signs $900 bn COVID-19 relief Bill; package to avert govt shutdown, extend unemployment benefits

The legislative package will provide billions of dollars for the distribution of a vaccine, funds for schools, small businesses, hospitals and American families

The New York Times December 28, 2020 10:08:29 IST
Donald Trump signs $900 bn COVID-19 relief Bill; package to avert govt shutdown, extend unemployment benefits

File image of outgoing US president Donald Trump. AP

US President Donald Trump on Sunday abruptly signed a measure providing $900 billion in pandemic aid and funding the government through September, ending last-minute turmoil he had created over legislation that will offer an economic lifeline to millions of Americans and avert a government shutdown.

The legislative package will provide billions of dollars for the distribution of a vaccine, funds for schools, small businesses, hospitals and American families, and funding needed to keep the government open for the remainder of the fiscal year. The enactment came less than 48 hours before the government would have shut down and just days before an eviction moratorium and other critical pandemic relief provisions were set to expire.

But it also came after two critical unemployment programs lapsed, guaranteeing a delay in benefits for millions of unemployed Americans.

The crisis was one of Trump’s own making, after he blindsided lawmakers and White House officials with a videotaped implicit threat Tuesday to veto the package, which his top deputies had helped negotiate and which had cleared both chambers of Congress with overwhelming bipartisan support nearly a week ago. The 5,593-page legislation was flown to Florida, where the president is spending the winter holidays, on Thursday and has been waiting for Trump’s signature since.

While the legislation provides for expanded and extended unemployment benefits, Trump’s delay in signing the legislation allowed two critical programs to lapse this weekend and guarantees a delay in benefits for millions of Americans who had relied on the income. The legislation originally codified a weekly $300 federal benefit — about half the original benefit established in the March stimulus law — for 11 weeks, and extended the two programs.

With state unemployment agencies waiting for federal guidance on how to put the new legislation in place, it is unclear how quickly those programs could resume and whether the benefits would be retroactive to accommodate the delay. Because unemployment benefits are processed weekly and the legislation was not signed before the beginning of the week, it is likely that workers in most states will lose a week of benefits under the expanded program, as well as a week with the $300 supplemental benefit.

“They might get it at the back end, but there are bills tomorrow,” said Michele Evermore, a senior policy analyst for the National Employment Law Project, a nonprofit workers rights group. “It’s just so frustrating that he couldn’t have figured this out yesterday. One day of delay is catastrophe for millions.”

A Democratic aide on Sunday said most states would need guidance from the Labor Department to see if they could pay benefits for the week of 27 December.

The delay also jeopardized the time frame for distributing direct payments to Americans, which Steven Mnuchin, the Treasury secretary, had initially promised could be distributed as early as this week. The legislation provides for $600 payments for Americans — half the amount approved in the $2.2 trillion stimulus law in March — after lawmakers in both parties pushed for the inclusion of another round of payments.

“For families wondering how they will pay January rent or buy groceries, a weekslong delay could have serious consequences,” Sen. Ron Wyden of Oregon, the top Democrat on the Senate Finance Committee, said in a statement Sunday evening. “While it’s a huge relief that the bill is being signed, Donald Trump’s tantrum has created unnecessary hardship and stress for millions of families.”

Congressional leaders and Mnuchin, the emissary dispatched on behalf of the White House, had spent most of December racing to break a monthslong impasse over how to provide the most significant infusion of federal pandemic relief since April and address a number of provisions set to lapse at the end of the month.

But having been largely sidelined from the negotiations, the president suddenly threatened to withhold his signature over an unexpected demand to more than triple the $600 direct payments to $2,000 and his concerns over government funding provisions that provided foreign aid. Republicans had insisted on curtailing the size of the direct payments to accommodate conservative concerns about the size of the package, and the provisions Trump singled out were in line with the president’s budget request this year.

“It’s called the COVID relief bill, but it has almost nothing to do with COVID,” Trump said in a video filmed at the White House on Tuesday, just 24 hours after Congress approved the legislation. “Congress found plenty of money for foreign countries, lobbyists and special interests while sending the bare minimum to the American people.”

Over the holiday weekend spent at his Florida estate and golf club, Trump appeared to double down on his resistance to the legislation. But in an abrupt reversal Sunday evening, he suddenly teased “Good news on Covid Relief Bill. Information to follow!”

Lawmakers in both parties spent the weekend urging Trump to sign the bill and reverse course, with a bipartisan group of lawmakers who had helped break a monthslong logjam in Congress over stimulus aid urging either an immediate signature or a veto in order to “allow those in favor to act before it is too late.”

“I understand he wants to be remembered for advocating for big checks,” Sen. Patrick J. Toomey, R-Pa., said on “Fox News Sunday.” “But the danger is he’ll be remembered for chaos and misery and erratic behavior if he allows this to expire.”

Trump’s delay in signing the measure had left desperate Americans on edge as their unemployment benefits lapsed.

One of those who had waited to hear what the president would do, Melissa Martinez, 52, of Westminster, Colorado, said she had applied for more than 50 jobs since being laid off as an operations manager for a transportation company in April. Like millions of others, her unemployment benefits expired the day after Christmas. “I’m out of options,” she said.

Jennifer Bryant and her family needed the aid in the stimulus bill to keep their home in Flowery Branch, Georgia. She and her fiance, who have five children between them, had been collecting the now-expired unemployment benefits. Besides the extension of those benefits, the relief package will keep in place a moratorium on evictions that will otherwise expire on 31 December.

“When Congress passed it, it was the biggest sigh of relief for us,” said Bryant, 39, who is about $10,000 behind on her rent. But then she watched the video Trump posted on Twitter on Tuesday, in which he called the bill “a disgrace” and implied he would not sign it.

“I went to bed in tears,” Bryant said before Trump signed the bill. “To have our hope pulled out from under us, our lifeline. It’s devastating.”

Emily Cochrane c.2020 The New York Times Company

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